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Goodbye Joe, Me Gotta Go

There are 25,000 Cajuns in Houston. Almost none of them play Cajun music. Why not?

Zydeco is the R&B-based accordion grooves of black Creoles."

Now that's out of the way, we can get to the question with the less obvious answer -- the one about the near-absence of Cajun bands in Houston. Steve Bing is one of Houston's biggest champions of Cajun music. His band Grand Texas is likely the most prominent of the small number of Cajun bands here. "The main thing you need is to get people to come to the dances," says Bing. "I really have to maintain my e-mail list to get people to come out. It's not like Louisiana, where Cajun is now bigger than it ever was. There are a lot of great places to dance to zydeco here, but I wish more places would want to have Cajun music."

Michot believes that the Cajun Renaissance that has taken hold of south Louisiana in the decades after World War II never crossed the Sabine River with much strength. "Before World War II there was a period of Americanization," he says. "It was prohibited to speak French. At that time everybody was looking down on being Cajun, being French, and lookin' forward to bein' American, wantin' to assimilate."

"My grandfather learned French as his first language," says local multi-instrumentalist Will Golden, who plays in both Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys and the Lafayette-based Cajun/rock band the Bluerunners. "But he didn't want to teach his children French. He wanted them to kinda be American, you know? There was this whole big movement of 'We're American,' 'Stay American' and stuff. It's kinda sad."

Michot says that the war changed everything. In the European theater, Cajuns were in high demand for their language skills. "A lot of them got these great jobs because they could speak French," he says. "And they came home and said, 'Man -- I was the only guy who could talk to the French people. We actually speak a good language!' We had been told our language is uneducated, but that is bullshit. There was a renewed pride. And that was when they picked up the accordion again, right in 1945 when the war was over. But that was in south Louisiana, where people were still speakin' French in the family. Maybe in Texas it stayed more looked-down-upon to be Cajun. Back then you were automatically submitting to being lower-class when you said you were a Cajun."

And it was much easier for Cajuns to assimilate, if they wanted to, than their Creole brethren. The Creoles settled here en masse in neighborhoods like Fifth Ward's Frenchtown, and today there are a half-dozen or so Creole Catholic churches in greater Houston. On the other hand, Cajuns settled all over town and joined the churches that were already there -- to my knowledge, there has never been a Cajun parish in Houston.

Cajun musicians from the 1960s on played other genres. The institutions Cajuns established here have been restaurants like Pe-Te's, and today the music you hear at them most often is not Cajun music but zydeco.

Golden is puzzled about how zydeco has retained its popularity here with non-Louisiana audiences while Cajun music has not. "Clifton Chenier could take whatever was popular at the time and translate it into French," he says. "He could do it in English, too, if he wanted, and it was all really accessible and fun and people loved it, whereas the Cajun stuff just doesn't seem to work as well. We run into that all the time -- DJs will tell us, 'This song is great, but which songs are in English?' Apparently, no one wants to hear another language, really."

Which is a real shame. Houston was where zydeco was invented and where it continues to evolve in new directions, as with the zyde-rap fusions of J. Paul, Nooney and Lil' Brian and the neo-traditionalist movement of Corey Ledet, Cedric Watson and Ra-Ra Carter. Cajun music was stretching out similarly here in the mid-20th century, as the Lost Bayou Ramblers-revived Cajun swing attests. Imagine if it had continued after that, though: Houston could be the home of Cajun classic rock, Cajun punk, Cajun indie rock, Cajun freak-folk. Cajun punk, which Golden's Bluerunners have flirted with, seems an especially promising genre -- if bands like the Pogues, Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys can stretch Irish folk as far as they have without breaking it, and if Los Skarnales can punk up traditional Mexican and Tejano music, so could a band like the Lost Bayou Ramblers with Cajun music. Or some as-yet-unformed local band. (Hint, hint.)

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